Monday, December 5, 2022

Listen Up: SHE SAID and WOMEN TALKING

“Everything is sex, except sex, which is power.” — Janelle Monáe

Never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to turn any true story into a movie, even, or maybe especially, its own scandals. How quickly the shock of the new turns into the grist for the content mill. Here it’s She Said, a dramatization of the reporting of the 2017 New York Times story that exposed the decades-long abuses of producer Harvey Weinstein. That he was a bully and a bad boss had been widely known the whole time. Whispers of his sex crimes floated, too, usually on the margins of gossip reports and blind items. But it took this reporting, and others, to break a culture of silence around such shameful practices. This then became one of the first sparks that lit the #MeToo fire, a rolling bonfire of stories outing predatory men in a variety of industries. I wish we could, five years later, point to something more systematic that’s changed other than the ousting of various bad men from prominent positions they held. Still, that’s better than nothing. What we have with this new movie, from director Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) could’ve easily been a major Hollywood studio simplifying the case and building to a false triumph. Instead, it achieves a kind of unsettled cumulative force. Gathering sources, fact checking, finding corroborating evidence, and eventually clicking publish has a certain tension, and knowing it is only one step toward justice and not justice entire.

There’s definite inspiration from Spotlight in She Said. There’s the just-the-facts approach to interviews and collecting information. There’s the flatly honest glimpses into the home life of reporters. There’s the tone and style—serious, direct, plain, with accumulative force—much like the reporting it portrays. But where the former movie took a story an audience knew the general outline of, and used the specifics of the procedural undertaking to draw deeper understanding as the layers of secrets were peeled back, this one seems to proceed from a point of assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. Some of the names that are dropped and stories that are referenced are mentioned as if we already have that understanding. But there’s still that sense of unfolding discovery, as two reporters (Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan) are tasked by their editor (Patricia Clarkson) of getting the story in publishable shape. The sleuthing elements make for a sturdy, simple studio drama, with lots of talky sequences, some flatly expositional and others with a bit more personality, bringing to life something like a convincing portrait of the import job it reenacts.

Because a good journalism movie is also a detective story, it’s notable that the movie starts with the assumption that the guy who is suspected of committing the crime is absolutely the one who did it. The tension becomes not so much learning new information about the story—although impactful one-or-few-scene performances from Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton, along with Ashley Judd as herself, go a long way to dramatizing the pain of their persecutions—but the moral weight of asking the women confiding in them to go on the record. Mulligan and Kazan, inhabiting casually credible portrayals of working mothers, feel acutely the potential pain they’re leading these victims toward, and the sensitivity needed to get them to all agree to take uncertain steps toward outing their powerful victimizer. Its best scenes are ones that drive relentlessly into the process of doing so, in tandem with running through the necessary steps to draft, approve, and fine-tune a major article. The newsroom scenes of shop talk and phone calls and long meetings is a fine conclusion to all this hard work—and the final shot, of a cursor hovering over a button, makes an interesting counterpoint to the whirring presses of newspaper movies past. It’s a culmination of hard work that’s deceptively simple. What happens next is more difficult.

An even talkier exploration of this sort of abuse, and the consequences of speaking out, is writer-director Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. It’s set in a repressive Mennonite community—a few families on a secluded stretch of farmland—where the men keep the women uneducated and under their control. The story starts with the men off to town, leaving the women alone and able to discuss the sexual abuses to which they’ve been subjected. We see haunting flashbacks—quick cut images, really—of bruises on thighs, blood on mattresses. It is upsetting material handled with a soberness and lack of exploitation. Thus Polley keeps most of the film’s action to one meeting where the women gather to talk out their options. Should they stay and fight? Should they stay and forgive? Should they leave? There are few easy answers, and little agreement, at the start. Polley’s filmmaking is typically engaged with such questions, like her best work, autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell which most explicitly sees the ways in which people can thrive on false assumptions about themselves and those around them. That, too, sees the benefits of exposing the truth and talking it out. So here the women are in pain, expressed in different ways, and stand up the arguments that flow from these perspectives.

Throughout, there’s a collection of great actresses—Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy—ventriloquizing differing points of view, talking points brought to life. They’re partly real, convincing people, partly imagined inhabitations of their thorny debate. Adding to this incomplete sense of reality, the movie is shot in a sickly digital pallor—a super-wide frame with a stretch of wan color correction that seems to bleach out all sense of specificity. It feels like a well-cast experiment, in unforgiving digital that washes out the light and leaves the figures in the frame stranded in a smudge of pale fuzziness. It convincingly makes what could’ve been pastoral, and maybe even a rural ideal on the surface, into something that looks as uninhabitable as an alien planet. This emphasizes both the discomfort of their position, and the difficulties of seeing a way out. But it also emphasizes the conceit of it all—a sense of otherness and remove that heightens the dramaturgy and flattens the debate. I found myself wishing the movie was as powerful as its subject matter and, though it is respectful and an engaged intellectual exercise, the form and function never quite click into place for the transcendence of purpose for which it’s searching. Still, as reality continues to prove, there’s value in the talking, and we’re better off not letting such abuses fall under the powerful protection of silence, even if the results are imperfect.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Oh Ho No: VIOLENT NIGHT

Violent Night is for people who still think it makes them sound interesting to pretend they just noticed Die Hard is a Christmas movie. This hard-R actioner’s one innovation is to have the real Santa Claus (David Harbour) interrupt a home invasion. Alas, this is a noxiously pedestrian effort, lousy with gore and four-letter-words and filled with the unappealing, poorly sketched characters in the most routine plotting. It wants to be winking and transgressive. It tries really, really hard. How boring. It takes a real misanthrope or outsider to understand the undercurrents possible in a dark Christmas story. Put a Christmas Evil or Black Christmas or Dial Code Santa on and you’ll find a cozy Yuletide scumminess in harsher-edged stories of queasy intimate despair and real bloody danger. There’s always something bittersweet and sad about the holidays, a time to reflect on a fall from childhood innocence and domestic happiness. Even a more monstrous take—Rare Exports or Gremlins—plays up the Charlie Brown Christmas melancholy as it excavates clever ways to set scares against the setting. This one, with all its blandly blocked studio gloss, is just dull. It takes its idea’s surface and resolutely refuses to dig even one centimeter into its implications, senselessly colliding stupid fantasy with gooey gunplay over and over. And the thing stretches that thinness over two whole hours. Talk about a lump of coal.

The resulting forced frivolity leaves only mirthless misery where the action and comedy should be. It finds a horrible wealthy family trapped in their mansion on Christmas Eve when a paramilitary heist squad (led by John Leguizamo) shows up to take millions out of their vault. Turns out the family runs a black-ops contractor company and stole their stash from the US government by claiming it disappeared in the Middle East. Since we met the sweater-clad family (which includes Edi Patterson and Cam Gigandet and Beverly D’Angelo) vulgarly sniping at each other around a crackling fire, we aren’t exactly predisposed to like these crooked people. But the villains are never sympathetic either. And the movie lacks the moral or political clarity to actually make something of all that. So it’s just nasty for nasty’s sake. That’s an ain’t-I-a-stinker? move that runs straight into the movie’s actual attempts to make this all about The Spirit of Christmas. The horrible family has one bright spot: an innocent little girl (Leah Brady) brought by her reluctant mother (Alexis Louder). The tot still believes in Santa, and that belief in him will help save them all once Saint Nick himself ends up coming down the chimney and reluctantly reconnects with his Viking roots. Its approach to Claus lore is typically charmless. To see the jolly old elf himself sledgehammer and electrocute and behead the intruders, is, well, something, I suppose. This is all tiresomely tedious, and director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow), working from a screenplay by the Sonic the Hedgehog guys, lacks the chops to really make this mess of intentions cohere. The result is an ugly mixture of cringing empty holiday sentimentality and nasty artless violence.

Same As It Ever Was: WHITE NOISE

You can always tell when a filmmaker enjoys reading great literature. There’s the extra understanding of the importance of the shape of a story, an added attention to weaving incident and images with thematic motifs, a patience for constructing dialogue with an ear for layers of meaning and revealing detail. There’s the confidence for letting a story feel like it’s sprawling, even as the pile-up of moments and impressions builds to somewhere intentional. Watching a movie from such a filmmaker—even a partially-successful one—can sometimes activate the English class seminar in me, filling the brain with the pleasing close-reading feeling of getting absorbed in a fascinating narrative and pinging off each noteworthy detail as you build a grand theory of the text.

Noah Baumbach’s always been a clever, verbose screenwriter, with his early efforts like Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy of a piece with that 90’s wave of East Coast indie wordsmiths, like Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley, who made their bones on dialogue patter with a fine-tuned ear for idiosyncratic character. Lately, though, he’s risen to greater heights, and ever more literate efforts. His Marriage Story is a precise dance of perspective as both partners in a divorce have their foibles and complaints balanced on the fulcrum of what’s best for their child. In its focused generosity of character and anecdote, it has the vibes of a densely imagined ensemble adult drama of the Terms of Endearment or Ordinary People adaptations kind, albeit with more quotidian conflicts instead of tear-jerking tragedy. Fizzy comedies like Mistress America and Frances Ha are shaggy, observational, and quippy like a slim, charming, surprisingly soulful character study. Greenberg has its cranky epistolary hook. Best is his The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which, from the title on down, plays like the best collections of linked short stories. This one has insight into three generations, interest in art and legacies, empathy for revealing eccentricities and tender connections, and smart repetitions of key lines. That gives it the intimate interior scope of the finest-tuned concision.

His latest is a further expression of his literary tastes: White Noise, an ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel. That classic was a timely satire of middle-class ennui, academia’s tunnel vision, and consumer culture’s mass homogenizing media noise. It’s the story of a small-town college professor (Adam Driver) and his family. He’s an expert in Hitler Studies. His wife (Greta Gerwig) is a frizzy-haired wellness coach and secret addict of experimental pills. They have a Brady Bunch of children from their previous marriages. The first part of the story is a swirling, arch take on campus politics—especially as the professor talks with colleagues, including a new friend (Don Cheadle) who teaches a class on cinematic car crashes and dreams of being the expert in Elvis Studies—and a cozy, overlapping ensemble family dramedy. The second, best, part takes a swerve for the apocalyptic, as a train derailment sparks what’s known euphemistically as an Airborne Toxic Event. The town has to evacuate, cutting short the brewing plot lines and tossing the characters dynamics into a tumbler. These sequences are shot with wide lens complexity and dazzling real-world spectacle—like Altman’s Nashville traffic jam meets the UFO gawkers from Spielberg’s Close Encounters. The final stretch, an extended denouement, returns to resolve some of the threads from before, but the traumas of the middle stretch contaminate. The new dark cloud of mortality that hangs over all.

Appearing on our screens now in 2022, the adaptation is somehow even more timely in the midst of a pandemic, and an opioid crisis, and an ongoing erosion of confidence in systems big and small. But to reduce it to the oblique commentary on its 80s times, or ours, is shortchanging it as a work of ideas. It buys into the humanity of its characters and their predicaments, even as the movie operates at a heightened pitch. It swings from quiet, tightly-framed, naturalistic dialogues to loud, highly choreographed, widescreen sequences saturated with colors and lights. In grocery stores and campus cafeterias, the fluorescents practically radiate with an intensity. In the home, crowded with kids and books and nooks and crannies, there’s a cozy hustle and bustle to the more naturalistic textures. In the wilderness, an endless highway and crowded campground, there’s wide open possibility that’s somehow closing in. Here’s a story at least in part about life as a jumble of sensations guided by circumstance and environment that don’t care for you or your systems. And it’s about the meanings we make with, and for, each other to make sense of it in spite of the bombardments of stimulus. “Family,” goes a repeated professorial axiom herein, “is the cradle of misinformation. We’re fragile creatures, and the society we’ve built to obscure that fact is easily strained. A key image has to be an evacuated man angry that their fear hasn’t made the news, and thus isn’t validated, or that that feels the same as not existing at all.

Baumbach stretches his style here with impressive dexterity and scope. He shoots his adaption like a 90s ironic version of a 70s suburban drama—all overlapping dialogue and roaming camera and self-consciously elaborate tableau. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is slick and insistent, not unlike what Conrad Hall brought to American Beauty or how Alan Rudolph half-successfully adapted Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. It’s at once flatly naturalistic and cocked at a half-joking expressionism. Turns out, you tip an 80s consumerist playground or small-town aesthetic just slightly to the left or right and you get a rumbling, believable self-satirizing setting. There’s a high-toned seriousness played for woozy, breezy, frazzled choking smirks. Danny Elfman’s score has pounding carnival horns and soaring theremins and dark, noodling madness—a perfect amalgamation of his collaborations with Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. Together the sound and image create a tension, a lightness, and an inner motor for a movie that bursts with inner life—the suggestion of intellects spiraling. And in the middle is a rather believable family relationship, as Driver and Gerwig and the younger performers make a unit that’s lovably eccentric and unbelievably tossed about by the upsetting events that threaten to tear them apart. There’s something emotive there to hang onto as the movie takes its spins through incidents amusing, frightening, chaotic or cringing. It looks at a world with fears, and denials, and ominous signs of contamination and infection and distraction and despair and says, well, fair enough. But you gotta have hope, too.

The movie, like the book, albeit without slavishly chasing its every rabbit hole, feels caught, and overwhelmed, in a time of transition. DeLillo’s work was in the mode of fascinating 80’s boomer novels—far enough from the incomplete progress of 60’s radicals to feel the failures, and taking the temperature of the very waters that’ll brew the Gen X disaffected distancing. Inspired by this source, Baumbach has copied over its frazzled stream of ideas, a sure-footed confusion, a world bombarded with messages and television and radio dispatches and camcorders and corded telephones. He captures a sense of disruption, and places at its center earnest performances invested in the characters emotions. It’s a neat trick making the people real and their world hyperreal, piling on details verging on surreal—The Event, vivid nightmares, a drop into potential climactic violence—while the characters maintain their sense of self. The film strains to capture these extremes at times, tipping fleetingly into too-clever artifice while trying to play it flat. And without the inner monologue there’s some vagueness around some less convincing plot turns. (What works on the page is sometimes harder to transition on screen, especially the swerves in the final third.) And yet, Baumbach directs like a smart reader, drawing our attention like a tour guide to the ideas and images and people on display. He takes us through a book’s notable ideas, dramatized and stood up on a stage for us to see. Not unlike when Gerwig herself adapted Little Women (easily my favorite classic-book-to-film in many years), the form itself is an argument to return to the text. It may not be a great movie, but, at its best, it can light up one’s brain like one.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Guess Who: GLASS ONION

Glass Onion isn’t exactly a sequel to Knives Out. It’s simply another complicated case for its sole returning character to puzzle through. Good thing detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is such great company, oozing Southern charm and confidence, while behaving an enlightened, affable gentleman who can slip right into any social context. He somehow stands out and blends in, the better to be underestimated as he gathers clues. And good thing, too, that writer-director Rian Johnson knows a thing or two about constructing a sequel that zigs when you’d expect it to zag, and ends up satisfying even more for giving you what you didn’t know you’d like to see. This one is a larger film, trading the first’s bickering family clad in cute sweaters, holed up in a cozy New England house while all their grievances tumble out, for a palatial mansion, with enormous sunny sets on a private Greek island filled with rich friends hanging around in sunglasses and beachwear. If Knives Out had an autumnal Thanksgiving vibe, Glass Onion is pure summer vacation.

It finds Blanc invited to a murder mystery party. He’s the ringer, and stranger, in a group of obscenely wealthy friends—a satirical send-up of every contemporary societal ill. There’s the host: an out-of-touch, and out-of-his-mind, tech bazillionaire (Edward Norton). And there are the guests: a hypocritical politician (Kathryn Hahn), a private-sector scientist-for-hire (Leslie Odom, Jr.), an alt-right YouTuber (Dave Bautista) and his girlfriend (Madelyn Cline), a ditzy model-turned-mogul (Kate Hudson) and her assistant (Jessica Henwick), and a former business partner who may be out for revenge (Janelle Monáe). It’s pretty easy to believe one of them will actually be murdered, and that they’ll all be so greedy and stupid that it might give Blanc quite a challenge. Johnson gives us a long, glittery, rambling opening hour that provides introductions to all of the characters and their dynamics. Invitations are delivered. The group assembles in Greece for the boat ride to the island. (Set during the first COVID summer, the way they wear their masks upon arrival is a big clue about their personalities.) They settle in for their first night in the mansion—a massive high-tech structure with dozens of rooms and topped with a gargantuan glass onion. The camera often pulls back to sweep around in bright establishing shots and drink it in, the sets and the setting providing a gleaming backdrop for the scheming. And throughout, Johnson, by taking his time, makes these political cartoons into bantering people we can size up and keep in mind as believable variables at play as the plot unfolds.

By the time the screenplay springs its surprises, doubling back on itself and deliberately filling in gaps I hadn’t paused to realize were left open, the film reveals it is awfully clever in a way that never stops paying out. There’s plenty of enjoyment on the surface of the movie, but when the setup reveals its full intentionality, there’s an added layer of rewards for the attentive viewer. This is a charmer of a mystery that you could practically chart on graph paper as its various setups converge with supremely satisfying reveals and conclusions. There’s an airtight clockwork construction at play, with each gear of plotting and character and humor turning at just the right time to click into place for crowd-pleasing punchlines and payoffs. Johnson’s a filmmaker with a great sense of genre play. See his straight-faced high-school noir Brick, or pretzel-logic time-travel thriller Looper, or his vivid, moving Star Wars episode. Here he’s totally at home, and clearly having fun, constructing these crafty mystery plots. They twist and turn, dangle detours and dole out tricks of perspective, but they always play fair with the audience. You can keep up with the logic, and by the end see the details close in with a pleasing snap. (It’s the dialogue and editing that does all the crackling and popping.) There’s evident delight in the construction, and that extends to the ensemble’s winning commitment to throwing themselves into the proceedings with wit and verve, too.

This has been a busy year for the whodunit movie. We got Greg Mottola’s shaggy, appealing Confess, Fletch. There was Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, excessive, and over-acted adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile; that has its velvety 70mm melodrama pleasures. We got a quaint and cozy little jewel box of a Christie homage, See How They Run; that’s a cute, winking meta-movie about a fictionalized murder mystery around the stage production of Christie’s The Mousetrap. (That movie actually brings Christie onstage, as if to say it was Agatha All Along.) But Glass Onion is head-and-shoulders above the rest. Rather than falling into homage or dutiful resuscitation of old tales, it’s the real deal itself. It’s built for maximum audience pleasure, and is quite pleased with itself, too. It’s formula without being formulaic. We return to these stories, not to be shocked and appalled or grossed out, but to take the mental exercise. Maybe it’s the cozy comfort of knowing, though the film may start with a dead body, it’ll end with a murderer revealed, and something like justice doled out.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Visions of Light: THE FABELMANS

In the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, it’s a snowy night in 1952 and a little boy is a little nervous about going to see his first movie. The prospect of giant people filling a wall in the downtown movie palace makes him leery. So his parents cheerfully try to calm his nerves. His father (Paul Dano), a meek, bespectacled engineer, launches into a technical explanation. Movies are just an illusion, he says: still photographs passed quickly before a light projecting the impression of moving pictures. His mother (Michelle Williams), who we’ll learn is a frustrated musician who battles depression, takes a more metaphorical approach. Movies are dreams, she says: dreams you never forget. Right there, in the opening dialectic between mother and father, science and art, reality and dreams, is the whole picture. It’s also a whole life, and a whole career. Anyone with an understanding of Spielberg the man and Spielberg the filmmaker will recognize that that boy, though he’s Sammy Fabelman here, is little Spielberg himself. Those are his parents’ occupations and personalities. And there he is, at his first movie, ready to discover The Greatest Show on Earth.

The movie that follows finds the boy’s growing interest in moviemaking, and dawning awareness that his parents’ marriage isn’t happy. These two aspects of his personal education are seen through a broader dawning of awareness of the world around him, and we see how a variety of influences inform who this young person starts to become—as an artist, and a man. Co-writing with Tony Kushner (in their fourth productive collaboration), scenes spanning his youth and teenage years are rich with character details that build out the world of this family, and their small circle of friends and relatives, as well as the reactions and habits that suggest their inner lives. We get amusing dinner-table chatter and passive-aggressive sniping and warm expressions of sympathy and acceptance. We also get those cross-currents of competition and concern that can push and pull on the decorum of a family. And further still, we get lots of happy moments, where the boy and his sisters and buddies make elaborate home movies and eccentric relatives float through and long car trips give a child new landscapes to feed his sharpening eye for noticing. (Great classic movies are doing that for him, too.) The scenes are framed in such a way that an adult eye can pick up on the unspoken details a child might not, but the perspective does so with such subtlety that there’s a fine-tuned generosity, and a lack of judgement. This isn’t a movie about a boy sometimes angry with his parents that is actually angry with the parents. There’s a lot of love here, foregrounded in the story, and some regret in the telling.

Spielberg approaches this semi-autobiographical sketch with the sensitivity to portray the dynamics honestly, the empathy to extend understanding to all involved, and the distance to deepen and resonate its ideas. This isn’t a retelling for self-aggrandizement or self-pity. Instead, it draws on a rich understanding of the relationships involved, and a lack of judgement on their actions. The boy finds much to be angry or sad about, and solace in honing his craft, but the movie itself is too compassionate to give in. This is a mature, even-handed look at specific moments in one particular family’s life. He keeps up the motif of the mechanical and the metaphorical, the technical and the emotional, light’s illusion and reality, throughout. The contrast between father’s machines—something to be taken apart, retooled, repaired—and mother’s music—piano practice filling the house with melancholy classical works—stand in for their ability to be complementary influences in a relationship. But it also stands in for their incompatibility. They’re trying, and there’s genuine affection there, but it just can’t connect consistently for the long term. It’s the figure of the boy, whose love for the movies becomes a love for the process—in long, loving montages behind-the-scenes of ingenious amateur filmmaking tricks and the procedural montages of previewing and cutting and adjusting 8mm reels—becomes the join between the head and the heart, the machine that makes ideas.

For that’s what the movies are: a technical feat that hits the heart. That’s what makes it a craft and an art. (So, too, says the movie, a calling.) By looking with such thrill of discovery at the makings of beginners’ films—and a beginning filmmaker—The Fabelmans reminds us that the movies are illusions that show us the world. They are collective dreams that hold us captive and can reveal something beyond the real and tangible—the deeper truths any great art form can access. Families are like that too, sometimes, built on shared dreams and memories, fueled by careful editing and elisions, motifs of light and shadow, rules and intuition. It’s about the framing, in what you see and know, and when, and how. It’s about whose perspective we share, what conclusions can be drawn, or faked, or ignored. Spielberg makes this movie with a clear-eyed love for family and film. It’s perhaps his most restrained work, with great blocking and image-making, but little of the obvious virtuosic camera moves or soaring scores for which he’s known. But it’s still, as so many of his movies are, about people seeing, or realizing, something amazing, and puzzling over its implications.

Moviemaking may be artifice, but the resulting art is, at its best, beautiful, and true, and real. And personal. Scenes of Sammy showing his movies to crowds are electric with pleasures and tensions. Seeing the audience react to one of his filmic tricks, you can see satisfaction sharing space with the wheels turning about how to grow and evolve as a technician and artist. Late in the film, Sammy, having shown one of his movies, is startled to discover he’s accidentally reframed reality for a character—and the gap between the screen and their daily existence opens up a crisis about how they’ll never live up to that image. This is a mirror of a scene in the middle where a few characters see an uncomfortable truth in some raw footage, a family secret hidden in plain sight. The movies can hide as easily as they reveal. And in the alchemy that takes them from an idea, to a camera, to a process, to art—there it is, real and unreal and all its consequences.

This is a movie about the thrilling act of creation, and the feedback loop between artist and audience. And it’s about how transporting and fulfilling it can be to see that screen light up with images you never knew you needed. Few movies about movies get this as right, perhaps because it’s not simply an ode to the form, but about the feelings and talents that come out of life lived full of complicated situations and shifting relationships. In the end, the movie’s final shot reminds us that all of this is framed with intentionality, considered for its implications, and shifted to clearly communicate its ideas. Here’s a movie from a master filmmaker, making the argument that everything one experiences goes into one’s art, and the results, with enough hard work, talent, and luck, can be transcendent. He’s right.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Adventure Time: STRANGE WORLD

Strange World is Disney Animation once again returning to its least frequent mode: the cheery, red-blooded adventure film. We might get notes of that threaded through their usual animal antics or fairy tale musicals, but when they decide to go all out—the Atlantis: The Lost Empires, the Treasure Planets—the results can be quite entertaining. In the case of Strange World, we’re introduced to a family of explorers whose patriarch (Dennis Quaid) never returns from an attempt to cross the seemingly insurmountable mountain range that surrounds their expansive home valley. This leaves his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) to become a farmer instead. This is an imagined old world where electricity is grown on the vine, and thus allows an agrarian society to have sparkly sci-fi vehicles and gadgets run off of freshly harvested glowing orbs. Farming may not be as exciting as exploring, but it’s perhaps more important. Decades pass, and this farmer, who now has a son of his own (Jaboukie Young-White), is recruited to join an expedition. The crops are dying of a mysterious disease and a group is off in a hovering aircraft—that and the environmentalist bent make for a clear Miyazaki nod—to track down the source. And so off they go, reviving the old family tradition. The movie is told with a similar pluck, traipsing from one appealing cliffhanger to the next in true serial fashion, complete with a soaring heroic orchestra theme and a band of appealing characters.

There’s a Boy’s Adventure magazine aesthetic to the plot’s development, shot through with a refreshingly casual 21st-century diversity—there are men and women, with figures of every color and a couple orientations and it’s no big deal, which is, of course, the big deal. And the world the team discovers, deep in the roots of their prized crop, is a feast of vibrant colors and fluffy surfaces. They find towering Seussian trees and curling DayGlo cliffs, fields of koosh-ball tentacles and grasses, flocks of floating fish and herds of rolling blobs. There’s even a cute blue gummy glob that splats around with chipper personality and becomes the obvious critter sidekick. And guess who else has been trapped down there? In this swirling mystery world of topsy-turvy dangers, there is, of course, room for intergenerational caring and conflict as three generations of guys—a tough grandpa, a stubborn son, and a sensitive grandson—have to learn to work together and truly discover a new way to survive. (Having a great mom (Gabrielle Union) involved helps, too.) Writer-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen (Raya and the Last Dragon) weave this family story through the adventure quite naturally, in a charmingly busy picture of constant color and movement. By the end, it’s also brought into focus a parable of ecological collapse and a need to reform an economy around alternatives to destructive industries. All this and a breezy fantasy adventure with eye-pleasing visuals and the earnest ode to family togetherness? Why, that’s just about all you’d want from a satisfying family movie night.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Out of Service: THE MENU and TRIANGLE OF SADNESS

In this new Gilded Age, the rich are a fat, juicy target for any satirist. But in fact, the obscenely wealthy hoovering up our resources and headlines are often far more ridiculous than any satirist could invent. It doesn’t take a political cartoonist to balloon their buffoonery; they’re already doing that on their own. Still, it leaves plenty of room for an astute storyteller to put them before us anew and bite with sharp portraiture to draw bitter laughs. That’s the project of The Menu and Triangle of Sadness, two complementary, and similarly half-successful, movies that take service industry jobs as their window into the one-percenters’ transactional heartlessness that’s at the core of so many societal ills. The willingness to diminish a person to their job is a hop, skip, and a jump from not seeing their humanity at all.

Revenge is the dish served in The Menu, in which a high-level chef (Ralph Fiennes) has invited a collection of horrible people to dinner. Each course ramps up the tension as his cultish cooks and servers twist the knife—sometimes literally—by slowly revealing that 1.) the guests are trapped in the restaurant, and 2.) each tiny, artsy, deconstructed course is designed to steadily reveal ever more of their personal foibles and secrets. There’s a smorgasbord of character actors (Janet McTeer! John Leguizamo! Reed Birney! Judith Light! Nicholas Hoult! And more!) for the ensemble as crooked tech bros, apathetic blue bloods, a snooty food critic and her editor, a washed up actor and his embezzling assistant, and a misogynistic foodie realize they’re being led to a slaughter. The one innocent (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a hired date of one of the diners. So at least there’s one person for whom to wish survival. The characters are all thinly sketched, leaning on our prejudices for implied critiques, and that puts a cap on the sick pleasures it could offer.

There’s a lack of specificity in its energy, and its understandings of its characters. It’s like they know they’re posing for a fiction. The chef himself is an unfair Gordon Ramsey riff, what with his employees shouting “Yes, chef!” upon every command as they run around a kitchen and dining area that looks like a cross between Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef sets. But it’s never clear what his grievance is, other than, as he says late in the picture, that his guests are the kind of people ruining the art of food. The result is a satire that’s pretty clever line to line—one of the screenwriters comes from the world of Late Night talk shows—and works well enough scene by scene. But it doesn’t really add up to much, with a visual style and pace that’s as smoothly stereotypical as its characters. The movie’s ultimately too pleased with its glibness to dig in and mean something of any consequence. I’ve seen lesser Saw sequels with a better sense of social commentary. Shame this one’s so undercooked.

Triangle of Sadness
gets off to a better start because writer-director Ruben Östlund knows how to spin up types and let them crackle with specificities. That’s what makes his best film, Force Majeure, so bleakly funny with its story of a vacationing family’s tensions after a mishap at a ski resort reveals way more about deep character flaws than anyone could’ve anticipated. His The Square does a similar thing with incidents set in a hollowed-out, corporatized, faux-transgressive art world. Sadness has a male model (Harris Dickinson) and his influencer girlfriend (Charlbi Dean) bickering over money before they arrive at a luxury yacht. The middle portion of the movie is dedicated to sharply needling vignettes in which they, or the other insanely privileged, preposterously selfish guests aboard the cruise, are blind to the needs of workers around them. Meanwhile, the smarmy customer service mangers wrangle and cajole their underlings to plaster on those fake smiles and never say “no.” All of these scenes are as precisely observed as they are darkly amusing. By the time Woody Harrelson exits his cabin as the alcoholic leftist captain, the movie’s setting up some pretty obvious ideological collisions, especially as he starts trading Communist critiques with a crooked Russian capitalist’s Thatcherite babbling.

There’s always a sleek intentionality to Östlund’s images, and a stately chill that lets the squirming satire scrambling within them twist all the more uncomfortably. That works right up until it doesn’t in this case. The movie builds up a healthy head of steam on its outrage over inequality. That bursts on a turbulent night that sends these rich folk tumbling through vomit and sewage. That’s a pretty hilarious as a fit of scatological schadenfreude. But it’s the film’s endless final third that slowly unravels anything potent about the early going. Set post-shipwreck on a small tropical island, it thins out its class critiques with a reductive tromping through human nature as a struggle to survive. This doesn’t level the playing field, but reverses it in a reductive, and vaguely condescending way. The result is basically a less astute Lord of the Flies with assholes. And then it concludes—or really just peters out—with a limp joke and some inscrutable ambiguity. That’s the sort of ending that not only is unsatisfying in the moment, but retroactively makes the early going feel weaker, too. It misses the mark.